My Friend Has No Morals

Worry makes us prey when we find a friend making a muck in their daily habits and routines, doing things which either violate our own morals or engaging in behaviour without regard to any moral compass of a sort. A friend without morals is either a blessing or a curse, depending on who we are. 

We are blessed if we have a friend with no morals and are ourselves without morals, so long as we are not seeking morals either. Because then no one will ever put us in the uncomfortable situations which arise from moral enforcement; calling us out for poor, wreckless, and self-destructive behaviour. That is a luxury only afforded to those without morals. And yet we are cursed if we have a friend with no morals and are ourselves with morals; only because we are greatly disheartened by the abandonment of good morals, for a person without morals we see as lost or in the dark. We are either free or burdened when we have a friend without morals, but whether we are free or burdened depends on our own disposition.

Let us suppose we believe that we should treat well our own bodies and our immediate social circle, that those constitute our own morals. Well, a life wherein we watch a friend binge drink and smoke, eat fast food, and ignore their relationship partners for alcohol can be quite agonizing; it is like we are behind a glass window watching someone drown, unable to reach out and grab them. When we have morals, a friend without morals is torture. 

When we do not have morals, then, we are unrestricted and are able to engage in all sorts of immediate, lower pleasures. We can eat whatever, talk to whomever, and smoke and drink whenever. We are free from all the restrictions of a moral compass, we live a truly free life. A free life is one of little morality.

But if the person without morals is content with having their window be covered in smoke, being unable to see those who try to help them, then what should the person with morals do? When we have a friend without morals, what are we to do?

(Related Article: Moral People Have Less Friends)

We should first ensure that the person without morals is indeed someone who has no morals. To determine whether someone is without morals or not can be a rather difficult task, to which we must give great attention to detail; for some common problems arise in this task, of which are easily missed. To ensure someone indeed has morals when distractions are around is like trying to determine whether a child swimming in the water is either splashing or drowning, except there are 10 children doing that. We have to identify what is genuine drowning and what is splashing.

When we are trying to assess whether someone has morals or not, we should ensure that we are not placing too much emphasis on a bad trait, so much so that we entirely ignore their good traits; for example, if someone smokes, drinks, and parties too much, then we could be tempted to conclude that they are seekers of immediate pleasure, strictly speaking; however, those same people might be doing something entirely different in some hidden aspect of their lives; perhaps they are successful business owners or artists. As to whether that is likely or not, we are not concerned with; only because we treat individuals as individuals, and so must go by a case by case basis; hence we must ensure we do not place too much emphasis on their smoking, drinking, and partying when trying to determine whether they are with morals or not.

Another common problem in our search for someone’s morals comes from a failure to see moral differences. Sometimes people have a different set of morals than we do. For example, those who believe free speech is absolute, which includes unsavoury opinions, have different morals than those who believe in reasonable censorship. But all too often the difference of morals leads to the conclusion that the other party clearly has no morals; only because one side will refuse, entirely, the acceptance of something they disdain being called “morals”. So, a difference in morals can lead to a blindness to the morals of others.

Once we ensure that our emphasis is justified, that we are giving equal weight to both positive and negative traits of a person, then we are to decide whether our friend is with or without morals. If our friend is without morals, then we must develop an appropriate course of action from there.

We are left with two options. We either stay or leave. 

If we stay, then we have a few more options to choose from. We can, on the one hand, stay and accept the person’s lack of morals. Rather than strive for a better relationship, we can accept our friend as they are and tolerate their lack of morals; but I caution against doing such, only because moral people must resort to silence in order to tolerate those without morals. 

When we are moral, we have a worldview where things are wrong and right, good and bad. So, for people to tolerate us, they must either change or we must be silent. And in addition to our silence, living a daily life wherein which exposure to immorality is high seems nothing short of a sadistic endeavour to undertake; so staying and accepting the person as they are seems far from self-love and self-care.

Alternatively, we can stay and work on the relationship and the friend. Instead of passively accepting the friend’s lack of morals, we can encourage the person to undergo change. Rather than watch our friend be reckless and self-destructive, we can watch our friend undergo change and make contributions to the overall good in the world. 

And I think our last option for staying, if working on the relationship and the friend goes wrong, or fails to proceed past a certain point, is compromise. Compromise is not quite the same as working on the relationship, because a compromise might not require substantial character change.

To elaborate, whereas working on the friends moral compass requires direct change, compromise can require nothing more than momentary stoppages. Instead of engaging in self-destructive behaviour everyday, a compromise might be that the friend only engages in self-destructive behaviour when we are not present. Rather than the friend lying all the time, they instead only lie to other people. 

Compromises, as we can see, of that sort are like burying our heads in the sand. We pretend something is not happening as long as it happens outside of our immediate awareness. But that doesn’t necessarily mean we should avoid all compromise.

I understand that, when we ignore a broken leg and try to walk on it, nothing but more hurt comes from our neglect of the wound; friendships, however, could benefit from that sort of neglect, though only in the short term; because the longer the neglect the more and more our situation becomes like a broken leg.

Put more explicitly, sometimes we cannot demand great change in someone’s moral compass too quickly, as they might become overwhelmed or self-defeatist. Afterall, making moral changes requires an exertion of will, and our wills are not limitless. So in cases where someone is struggling with a moral change, and we are not willing to tolerate their immoral behaviour, we can make a compromise. We can ask them to irresponsibly drink twice a week, in private, rather than six times a week; we can ask them to stop insulting others while around us rather than insulting others in general. Those are small, more manageable changes for the immoral person, and those are reasonable compromises which, in the short term, can help our relationships.

Now, our other option was to leave. If we are unwilling to stay, then our other option is to leave. But in order to determine whether we should stay or leave, we need some criteria. Put elsewise, what would make us stay and what would make us leave?

One important factor is change over time. To no surprise, I hope, to anyone, we have a limited lifespan. Our time on earth is finite. So, we should not give someone an entire lifetime to change, our willingness to participate should be a function of someone’s rate of change. 

When someone takes months to years to undergo even minor changes, our willingness to participate in the relationship should decrease; in general, the longer a change takes to be implemented, all else being equal, the lower our willingness to participate should go. If we ask someone to stop insulting others, and they persist months later, that might be a sign that the relationship has run its course.

So change over time is one factor, but another factor is resentfulness. Just because someone has changed does not mean the change was good or preferable.

Sometimes a friend can implement a change and be resentful about implementing said change. In example, a friend who, bitterly so, quits smoking and drinking because they would rather avoid being “lectured” about health than getting healthier. Such can be a sign that the friendship should end.

Because a resentful change can lead to passive aggression toward someone, and a resentful change demonstrates a lack of understanding behind the principles and motivations to change, and a resentful change, due to it not grasping the principles and motivations, shall likewise lead to a lack of appreciation for the effort put forward.

First, people who hold resentment toward another person tend to be passive aggressive toward that person; for example, when we resent that our neighbor has a new car, we will talk poorly of their new car and the decision to buy the car. That sort of toxicity is not something to be desired in a friendship.

Second, a person who resents change is like a bot; they can respond to written communications but fail to understand the meaning behind those communications. They can give us the right responses, but fail to understand why those responses are right. That is not what we really asked for; someone who resents the change is like having a bot for a friend, all syntax no semantics: not genuine.

Third, because the friend will be all syntax and no semantics, they cannot therefore appreciate the effort gone into shaping the semantics. The friend won’t understand the meaning and importance for the change, and so we are then ignored or under appreciated. 

Now, I am sure there are other factors to be considered as well, but I believe these two alone are sufficient grounds to consider leaving the relationship. I cannot fathom someone who is both of a rational mind and willing to spend their entire life with someone that neither makes timely change nor appreciates their efforts. We only have so much time alive, so spending it on the right people is important.

Thus, when our friends have no morals, and we are sure of that, then we must decide to stay or leave. The choice is ours, and so too are the consequences.

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Ideasinhat is a business development analyst and longtime reader of academic literature. He writes books and essays on science and philosophy, and posts them to this website. The essays, as with the books, cover topics from psychology, philosophy, and cognitive science to economics, politics, and law.

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